Vietnam - family, rain and hats
Hanoi - the big get-together
Vietnam for us was really special but not because of the country – it was because of the family. After almost a year of traveling we were able to spend almost a month with Jordi’s father Jaume and his life partner Antonia, and Jordi’s brother Albert. With Hanoi as the meeting point, we all planned our individual itineraries up till there: Jaume and Antonia came to Vietnam all the way from Viladecavalls in Spain, Albert - from Hoi An in Vietnam and we – from the rainy Phonsavan in the neighbouring Laos. (With Internet and mobile phones what would have been an incredible logistics feat a decade ago required no more planning effort than getting together for a family dinner :). It all went pretty smooth except for one complication: LOT cancelled the direct flight from Warsaw to Hanoi, due to which Jaume and Antonia had to take the unbelievable 5 connections with some other company (Barcelona – Warsaw – Frankfurt – Bangkok - Saigon – Hanoi) and got to Hanoi very late at night with many hours’ delay. But the great thing was that they did make it to Vietnam the same day as planned, and as Albert joined us the next morning from Hoi An where he had been spending some time after studying for half a year in China for his master’s thesis, we were all finally together.
Hanoi Old Quarter
Our first meal together - barbeque vietnamese style
1) Typical Vietnamese houses; 2) Typical Vietnamese uniforms for girls:
For the first few days sightseeing seemed to be only the background action to talking :), as we exchanged news and stories trying to fill in a year-long gap in oral communication. We talked as we walked the colourful streets of the Old Quarter, and we talked while taking pictures of the stalls and vendors at the local market, and we talked while visiting the Confucianist Temple of Literature. Next morning we had to stop talking for a short while when visiting the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but not while queuing for it among one hundred Vietnamese pioneers, and definitely not after visiting it :).
Among the important subjects of all this talking were our itinerary for Vietnam and ‘the style’ of our joint traveling. The latter was about reconciling the inevitably different traveling styles between all of us. Jaume and Antonia’s only requirements were not to climb any peaks higher than three thousand (I guess the number of metres was symbolic but we got the main idea :)) and to be able to have a certain level of comfort in a hotel. For the rest unusual as it was for them not to have all the transportation, accommodation and tours arranged by some reliable travel agency back in Spain, they were prepared, quoting them, to “do it our way”. “And by the way, we would pay for everything during this month in Vietnam” was the generous wrapping of all their requirements. We happily accepted this mafia offer (it’s not like we are really attached to cockroaches, doubtful sheets, and “cold-water-bucket” showers in ‘our’ hotels :), and during the past month really enjoyed the comfortable hotels we stayed at. As to the itinerary, the simplest way to sample the country was – as always – to follow the highlights in the Lonely Planet, so we settled that one pretty fast.
Halong Bay - the amazing karsts
Our first destination after Hanoi was Halong Bay – one of the world’s most striking karst landscapes. After a few hours trip by bus and boat, we arrived at Cat Ba village, found a hotel and went to do the field research for the best offer of a boat tour around the Halong Bay. After comparing a few agencies we saw that the best deal was from our hotel (they even took us to see the boat and promised that the whole boat would be only for us) and next day early in the morning left for our 2-day-1-night tour. The thick clouds couldn’t tinge the beauty of the karsts and the strong wind couldn’t get us off the deck as we sat there wrapped in all the clothes we could get hold of watching the amazing karst shapes scattered all around us. As always is the case with such tours, the obligatory program was ok (we visited a cave, stopped at a floating “village” and did some kayaking) but it was the small things “in between” that were really memorable, like playing with the dogs at the “village”, and kayaking with all our kayaks held together, and stopping at a shell farm where two local guys were trying to show us their “crop” by lifting the super heavy rusty metal structures containing shells, or making/breaking fortunes during the evening monopoly sessions.
On the bus to Cat Ba city as well as on many other buses, Jordi and Albert were playing PC games:
Halong Bay - the view from the entrance to the cave
Inside the cave
On day 2 we completed the obligatory program by visiting the “monkey island” which seemed to be inhabited by only one monkey and had exactly zero attractions. We tried asking our guide why we came there at all and as an answer he did diligently tell us the amount of monkeys that should inhabit the island, but when later, beaming with pride, he mentioned that he just got his guiding licence that morning, we realized that we couldn’t ask him “difficult questions”. So for the rest of the day, which consisted of one more visit – to the so-called Three Lakes, or caves - we patiently endured the statistics-like facts he must have memorized for his college exams but other than that really enjoyed simple conversations with him about Vietnam, culture, his family etc.
Monkey island - no monkeys to be seen:
Our tour completed with lunch which was the exact copy of both our previous day’s lunch and dinner, except for the extra soup which we got only because Jordi’s father spent half the previous evening trying to explain to the cook and the captain that no matter how much we love the cooking we wouldn’t mind to have something new for at least one of the three meals of the entire tour. I guess the soup that finally arrived at the table for our last lunch was the best praise he could receive for his communication efforts (which combined body language, practical application of the LP’s two-page vocabulary of most useful Vietnamese words and a lot of patience in getting through the rigid Asian minds).
Back to Hanoi - the water puppets show
As our tour was finished in the early afternoon, the same day we managed to catch a bus back to Hanoi, arrived at our – already favourite – Grand View hotel and the next morning spent some time shopping for bags (and me – working on the previous post), simply passing the time before the Water Puppet show (we had to buy tickets the first time we were in Hanoi as this thing is so popular the tickets are only available for a few days in advance). The puppets were funny rather than impressive but our real highlight about the show was the music – it was really beautiful and performed with the traditional instruments, one of which - dan bau - had a truly amazing voice. Such is the power of it that they say in old times only men were allowed to play it and no women could ever listen to it for fear that they would inevitably fall in love with the musician. We didn’t fall in love with the lady who played it but the magical frequencies did give me personally a little “butterfly in the stomach” feeling.
Sapa - disappointing rain and colourful minorities
We dedicated the rest of the afternoon to wandering around the market area and people watching (two activities that can always pass you a few hours of waiting time) and then went to the train station to catch our train to Sapa – mountainous area in the north of Vietnam famous for its rice terraces, colourful minority folks and markets. Our train arrived at Lao Cai – a station just a few kilometres away from China - at cold and dark 5 am, and one hour later (it was still dark and even colder) we arrived at the village of Sapa. The cold, heavy bags and lack of a sleep made looking for a hotel a bit painful so we settled for one of the few hotels we checked and immediately crawled into the cold beds to get a couple more hours of “straight-leg” sleep (as opposed to “knee-bent” train version of it).
We woke up refreshed and ready for a day of trekking Sapa, or at least of walking around and looking for trekking agencies... but unfortunately the weather was not on our side – non-stop rain and thick clouds didn’t invite for a trek, so we cancelled the original hiking plans (in the end the trekking sticks that Jaume and Antonia brought never touched the Vientamese soil) and spent the rest of the day walking the two streets of the cozy Sapa village, looking at the colourful H’mong and Dzao women in their traditional clothes and shopping for rain gear for Jordi and me (with just sweaters over t-shirts we were really freezing in the penetrating wind and rain of Sapa mountains so we finally decided that securing a permanent place for a decent windproof raincoat in our backpacks would not be a bad idea). By the end of the day we were much warmer in our new Columbia and North Face jackets. Exhausted with so much shopping :), we ate our well-deserved dinner (kind of Chinese hotpot but not “hot”) and went to bed.
Bac Ha - eyes wide open
Next day early in the morning we left the freezing altitude of Sapa for the market village of Bac Ha. On the way to this very famous weekend market we stopped at Lao Cai station and secured our train tickets back to Hanoi and left our backpacks with one of the friendly guys at the station. During the few hours we spent in minivans on the way to Bac Ha we had a glimpse at the gorgeous rice terraces and villages we would have seen if the weather would have permitted us to do a trek, and the little that we saw was enough to confirm that it was a real shame we had to miss it. The Bac Ha market with all the colourful people and incredible merchandise was a great solace, as it was by far the most incredible market we had seen in our entire one-year trip with Jordi (too bad our Canon batteries turned out to be discharged that day so we couldn’t take the usual million of pictures but Antonia’s camera was fine so we do have pictures of this unforgettable place).
Many of the below photos are by Antonia - our special thanks to her for the great shots of this colourful market!
With all the things that truly struck us about this market in a positive way there was also one thing that made our hearts cry from compassion: among all the animals they were selling for one or other type of consumption (buffaloes, pigs etc.) we saw them selling puppies... Dirty, abused, shaking from cold and hunger, probably aware of being sold as future meat, poor creatures were horrified of any touch by human hand. Although if we were to define the degree of “humanness” by the capacity of compassion a person feels towards any living being’s misery, then only a couple of human hands touched those puppies that day. ... We will always remember the terror-filled shriek one of them was producing every time potential buyers were taking it into their hands. We are aware of course that culture things sink deeply into the minds of people under the weight of generations and that’s why this inhuman dog-eating tradition still survives in Vietnam, but does it mean that culture can make a human-being’s ear insensitive to a horrified shriek of an abused animal, or a human eye blind to the shaking of a hungry sick puppy?..
After a couple of circles around the market we went to catch a van back to Lao Cai which proved to be more difficult than in the morning since all the buses that were passing by seemed to be filled by locals to the last part of their rubbery spaces. An entrepreneurial local woman must have called her friend as an hour later (just like she promised) an empty minivan emerged out of somewhere and picked all of us up together with more foreigners from a nearby hotel. A few hours later, after an evening of monopoly at a station eatery, we were on the train that would take us back to Hanoi, preparing for another night of “knee-bent” sleep.
Back to Hanoi again and off to Ninh Binh for more karsts and rice paddies
Next day back at the Grand View hotel (for the third time during this trip) we again tested the hospitality of the staff by repacking our bags in their reception hall. Later that day, with raincoats optimistically replaced by t-shirts, we headed direction south. Ninh Binh – a scenic place in the style of Guilin but with rice paddies among the karsts – was our first stop. The first day we only had a couple of light hours left so we dedicated them to checking the local market, the main memory from which is blood... It was all drenched in blood streaming from all the creatures that were being slaughtered there. They were peeling frogs some of which might have still been alive, killing chickens with one fly of an axe, there were snakes, ducks, dogs (we recognized them from pigs only by the shape of the skull)... a bit of a scary experience for those with a weak heart.
Tam Coc - rice paddies and gorgeous views
In the morning we rented bikes and went to see the karsts and paddies of Tam Coc. It was a really memorable boat trip even though as usual during all these day in Vietnam we could only imagine how breathtaking it would look without the rain. It was very quiet and the peddle hitting the water with each move of our boatman’s legs (yep, they row with the legs here) was filling the silence with a peaceful rhythm. On the way back when we suddenly stopped at one of the rice fields and our boatman started to hurriedly take away something that looked like weed from the young rice plants, we realized that rowing is only a secondary job for him and there must be a lot of farmers in Tam Coc who queue for tourists to earn extra don for their household. That same day we biked a bit further from Tam Coc to see a famous pagoda situated quite high up a hill and our efforts for climbing all the way to the top (where few tourists venture) were rewarded by really glorious views over the surrounding landscapes. On the way back to Ninh Binh we had another experience – this time of the gourmet variety – as we stopped at one of the road-side eateries to try a local specialty, goat meat. The meat (as I was told) was nothing special but the experience was memorable for how much effort went into communicating with these people regarding our seemingly simple order (like everywhere in Asia, they are totally hopeless with body language and seem to be oblivious of the fact that there are truly simple ways to show prices, e.g. fingers, or pen & paper, or a calculator).
Bich Dong Pagoda - view from the top:
Trying the local food specialty - goat meat:
Hue - sightseeing in gray-scale
From Ninh Binh our first sleeper bus took us all the way down to Hue. The city looked grey, maybe because the day – as usual – was grey and cloudy, but after visiting its main attractions “grey” became the permanent label for this city in my mind. The attractions were supposed to be a big thing – there is this ancient citadel, and the Forbidden Purple (!) city, but the citadel turned out to be just a huge brick structure staring at the Forbidden City in the same way Aurora stares at Zimni Palace in St Petersburg (at least it gave me the same grim feeling), and the Forbidden City which these days also looks grey, not purple, is only a miserable shade of what it used to be before American shooters destroyed it during the war (one can still see what it must have looked like from a Korean documentary which they show from enormous Korean flat screens on the premises of what used to be the Imperial Enclosure).
DMZ - a really long drive to the tunnels
Next day we had another row of sightseeing disappointment as we took an organized tour to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) – a strip of land which saw most action during the war. Although we were all looking forward to that tour, the biggest part of it turned out to be truly disappointing: for almost the entire day they drove us around in a minivan showing a mountain here (which was some important landmark during the war but looks no more than an ordinary hill unless you are a Vietnam war veteran), and a bridge there (yes, it was a very important link in the Ho Chi Minh trail but these days is just an ordinary steel bridge... unless you are a Vietnam war veteran), and then a museum where we spent half an hour in front of a map struggling to follow the outline of war events as narrated by our guide (there was a double challenge here – she had a really strong accent and a boring monotonous way of presenting history events). The only fun we had in the entire day was when we finally got to see the tunnels (the only thing we wanted to see in the first place) – they were right at the really wild beach, and were really narrow and low. It was difficult to imagine that people had to survive there day after day in those suffocating, claustrophobically tiny places, and even managed to conceive 17 babies! (who were all born in the tunnels’ maternity room as our guide proudly told us :)).
Kids of war and kids of now:
Hoi An - hello, sunshine!
Straight after the tour we took our second sleeper bus from Hue to Hoi An and the sunshine we saw on arriving there gave us hope that we will finally be able to take off our sweaters and have some beach time. We stuck around Hoi An for a little longer than in other places for a number of reasons: it was finally sunny so everything looked bright and cheerful, the city is the loveliest of the whole country, and there were quite a few things to do.
On arriving in Hoi An we found a hotel in Le Loi street (right in the old town) and spent the rest of the day walking around the city: the busy riverside, the even busier market (where we sampled some local noodle specialty called cao lau), the streets with souvenir shops (which pretty much means almost all of the streets of the old town), and the picturesque Japanese Bridge continuously photographed and even painted by the multiple tourists of the city.
Motorbike lessons for everyone - preparing for our next day's trip:
Fish market , the temples of My Son and visiting Albert's host family
Next day together with ‘the early birds who catch the fly’, we got up at 5 am to catch the sights of local fishermen selling their catch at the local market a few kilometres away from Hoi An. The market was really authentic and we really enjoyed it but the real ‘stars of the day’ were our motorbikes: the previous evening we had reserved three of them and that day really enjoyed driving them first to the market and next to the temples of My Son (read the Vietnamese way, not like “the kid who is mine”). Actually the bike ride was so nice that it made up for the disappointing temples (which were ok but very few thanks to the same precision of American shooters which “explains” the present look of the Hue Imperial Enclosure).
After the temple we drove to Hoi An and on the way stopped at a line of shops with kids toys to buy a present for the future kid of Albert’s hostess. When he was staying in Hoi An alone, he lived with a Vietnamese family on a kind of “full-board” arrangement. The father of the family is an old fishermen who has in total 10 kids! The youngest daughter lives with the parents, had recently married and was expecting a baby at the time. We got her a small push-trolley toy for the kid – one of those bright devices that we saw those lucky Asian kids who have one push around with a lot of enthusiasm. When we arrived at their house which is located just a few kilometres away from Hoi An old town and 100 metres away from the sea, they greeted us, we had some coffee and then Albert together with the hostess showed us around. Afterwards we spent some time at the beach, playing ball, eating the watermelon they treated us to and watching a local fisherman unload the scanty catch from one of those really unique basket-shaped boats that they use in Vietnam.
Trip to the (ruins of) temples of My Son:
Paying a visit to Albert's host family:
"Your skin is so white! I am so jealous! You wanna exchange? :-)" (comments of our Vietnamese hostess on the enviable whiteness of Jordi's father's skin):
Marble Mountains - caves and China beach
Next day, still under the impression from the whole day of ‘motorbike freedom’, we rented the motorbikes again and this time went to see the so-called Marble Mountains – a really fascinating place with striking caves, Japanese style pagodas and beautiful Buddha statues. We spent half a day there visiting the caves and pagodas, and in the last cave – a truly breathtaking one – benefited from the presence of the Japanese photography group as we took dozens of our own practice shots of the two models they hired for the session as they stood there in the middle of the cave bathed in their bright traditional clothes bathed in the bright beam of light streaming from the hole above. After a lunch of coconuts (which were meant as an innocent refreshment but turned out to have so much flesh inside that after we ate half of each we were too full to eat anything else), we started driving back to Hoi An and on the way stopped to spend some time on a really long and really lonely China Beach, which is currently undergoing a lot of development (it will most probably have a totally different look if we ever see it again, with neat lines of resort chairs embracing the lazy vacation makers (mostly from Russia) sipping their fruit juices and getting massages).
Our coconut lunch:
China beach - endless sea and sky:
Nha Trang - beach and diving
Once back in Hoi An, we went to purchase a three-kilo sandal-wood laughing Buddha (which we spotted the previous day and which Jordi’s father kindly acquiesced to take back to Spain for us) and went to catch the night bus to our next destination – Nha Trang. We stopped there to have some time on the beach and because it’s known to be Vietnam’s best diving location. It turned out to have a very city-like look, with zero charm but well-developed tourist infrastructure and quite decent beach. We spent the first day burning ourselves a bit on that beach but other than that enjoying swimming in really warm water, and visiting the Hindu Cham Towers where we saw a whole piglet sacrificed to some definitely non-vegetarian Hindu god and had a really great view over the city.
Next day was all about diving, and that diving was all about corals (with an incredible number of types, shapes and colours). Although it started with a bit of a nuisance, as our super inexperienced dive master managed to lose almost all of us as he ignored one of the most sacred rules of diving (when you cannot see someone for longer than one minute, stay at the same place and go up) and which made us waste 20 minutes and have a very shallow and hurried first dive, we did enjoy both dives we had that day, as well as the boat and the tasty lunch.
Diving - amazing corals:
Mui Ne - beach and dunes
Next day we caught a morning bus to Mui Ne – the “sandy babe” of Vietnam. On arriving there we cooled down a bit in the comfortable swimming pool of our hotel and then went to see what we came to see – the dunes. Following the LP instructions, we hired the jeep as we were under the impression that the jeep will make the trip through the dunes enabling us to see more than we could cover on foot. Funnily enough the girl we discussed the tour with confirmed that assumption. Our first stop was at Fairy Stream – a streak of red-clay canyon-like hills stretched along a tiny stream – which we almost missed as our driver gave us very fuzzy directions and the path was not very straightforward. But the real surprise came at the next stop – the Yellow Dunes – where he dropped us just like before at the Fairy Stream - at the road side - and told us to go explore the dunes on our own. We did enjoy the time we spent there, especially our jumping competitions and the view of the sunset, but back in the hotel we had a talk with the manager regarding handling western customer expectations.
Next day we took a taxi to find some beach (which is not so easy in Mui Ne where the sea at most first-line hotels licks the cement walls of their premises and the small stretches of public beaches are covered with the same cement instead of the usual white sand) and ended up swimming at the beach of some super fancy resort for a little while. After that it was time to go back, change and catch the bus to Vietnam’s southern capital and the last city we would visit together – Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh city as it was labelled in the ‘best’ soviet tradition of stealing city names).
Eating in Mui Ne is all about fresh seafood and fish:
Saigon - the busy southern capital
Saigon did have a look and feel quite different from Hanoi – it felt busier and maybe more modern, but just like in Hanoi where we enjoyed rambling the streets of Old Quarter, we had fun time walking the really narrow streets of the backpacker district and even stayed at a hotel in one of those tiny streets!
Mekong delta tour - non-existent floating market, workshops that are mere shops and a bike ride around a village
With very little time left in Vietnam, we acted against our intuition as we signed in for an organized tour to the Mekong Delta and next day spent 8 hours on the bus in order to see two boats and two shops that they call floating market and workshops correspondingly. Yes, it is a bit exaggerated but only a little bit as we saw a little more than two boats but no buying-selling activity which is usually essential to call something a market, and we did see how they make (horrible) coconut candy in one of the “workshops” but it was mostly about all the multiple people they had there trying to sell us the specialties at a price much higher than you would pay at a market back in Saigon. Nevertheless, disappointing as it was we cannot say that we didn’t enjoy it, and the highlight of the day was our bike tour through the one of the delta villages where we rode through really narrow dikes looking with wonder at all the fruits and plants they were growing there, and stopping at a local house for a wordless chat with the local family.
"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is... the 'easiest' tourist of all?.." Well, all of us, since we all signed for the same Mekong delta tour :-(
"My boat is my castle"... People living in these boats have plants and hammocks, among other household stuff:
Bike tour around a Mekong delta village:
Back to Saigon - time to say "goodbye"
Next day we spent the morning checking Cholon – the Chinese area of Saigon and afterwards escaping the relentless sauna-like heat in one of the local eateries, sipping super tasty fruit shakes (we tried some really exotic ones that day, like soursop and sapodilla) and playing monopoly until it was time to say good bye: Jaume, Antonia and Albert had to catch a flight back to Hanoi that day from where they would go back to Spain, Jaume and Antonia – almost directly (with LOT you never know), and Albert – via Shanghai where he had to pick up his stuff. We did feel very sorry to see them leave as it was the last family time we would have for some time to come, but at the same time we felt lucky that we were the ones staying behind to continue travelling. Once again, for Jaume and Antonia, our deepest thanks for making your vacation plans in such a way that we could travel together for almost a whole month and for everything you did for us while here!
Phu Quoc - beach paradise with little tourist infrastructure
The few days we had left in Vietnam after the family left we spent at the beautiful though very underdeveloped island of Phu Quoc (very close to Cambodia). We did enjoy the hot water, the beautiful quiet beach, the hammocks in our relatively cheap bungalow in the first line hotel, the dinners at the cozy restaurant right on the beach (which we had to use since there were no eateries around), and the visit to the town market where we stocked up on fruit and were lucky to be there at the time when they opened the bridge so we could watch all the big colourful boats as they manoeuvred through the space so small that we could hear the “hi” from the crew members without any problem. It was a happy few days which in the end made us forget the truly painful 26-sleepless-hour trip that we had to get there (we had expected it to be much faster and more comfortable but all the tickets were sold out so we had to take smaller and longer journeys with minivans and wait for half day at the city of Rach Gia for the first boat which had some seats left). Our return trip to Saigon was much faster and definitely less painful, as this time we had bought all our tickets in advance.
At the market:
The bridge opening "ceremony" at the market:
Rach Gia - zero tourists, hundreds of motorbikes:
A diligent pioneer (= member of the soviet youth association):
Last sleepless days in Vietnam and in between the countries
We arrived in Saigon early in the morning and spent an entire day just passing time before our flight to the usual indispensible Air Asia hub - KL, trying not to fall asleep (it was really difficult after the night bus but the guard at the park made it easier when he shouted to us his very expressive “YOU!!!” as he was passing by and saw us dozing off on one of the remote benches). Early in the afternoon we caught a bus to the airport where we finally managed to sleep for a couple of hours which was perfectly fine with the airport guards, after another hour of sleep on one of the Air Asia airbuses landed in KL, and after a night of sleeping in the freezing airport hall caught our flight to our actual destination – Medan in Indonesia.
Oh, sweet sleep:
A few last notes on Vietnam
A few closing remarks on Vietnam – we did enjoy it but mostly because we travelled it with family. Maybe due to the rain, but it seemed a little less colourful destination than we had imagined it to be. Then there was the usual problem where the food as described in LP is much more diverse than what we actually find in the eateries. The organized tours were a great disappointment (which we wouldn’t have had if we didn’t need to save time). But we guess in better season and with less rush it is a really great country to visit.